...my original country is the region of the Summer stars;
Idno and Heinin called me Merddin,
At length every king will call me Taliesin.
From: The "Book of Taliesin", 13th Century.
Another day, another corridor...
'Tell me again why we're doing this, and not Elphin's men?' Vivienne whispered as they made their way carefully through the dark corridors of Caer Duergar. 'Because I don't think I'm going to tire of hearing this excuse.'
'Sshh.' Taliesin whispered back, peering around the corner. Vivienne stuck her tongue out at his back and leant back against the wall of the corridor, arms folded. Taliesin pulled his head back and sighed. 'Nothing. It's clear, so far. And if you were that bothered, you could have stayed back at the camp,' he pointed out, mildly. He slipped on a mildewed flagstone, to be fielded by Vivienne's quick response, her hand catching his arm.
'I hate it when you're being reasonable,' she hissed. 'And I wasn't about to let you come in here alone. Someone had to watch your back.'
'Elphin would have come if you hadn't. Now come on, it should be this way.' He'd nipped around the corner of the passage before she could reply. Biting back a pithy retort, she followed him. Elphin, and Taliesin, trying to infiltrate a former S'rax stronghold in the hands of a rogue magician? It'd be like letting two red setters loose in a rat pit...
Earlier that day: (On His Majesty's not-so-secret Service...)
'We scryed the fortress from the 'thopters, your majesty. According to the seer, it is not dormant. Something has reactivated it. And recently. The suspensor field doesn't seem to be operable, although he says the core is awake.'
Elphin swore under his breath, and waved the flightsman away with his ungauntleted hand. At the far end of the command tent, Taliesin looked up momentarily from tuning the lap harp in front of him, one long-fingered hand resting on the pegs.
'I did warn you that leaving these Caers untended was a mistake. The S'rax Battle Legions might be scattered after the war, but the legions aren't the only ones who can find a use for these fortresses.' A lock of long red hair fell into his eyes, and he brushed it back with a minimal, elegant gesture. Pale green eyes that had an intensity at odds with the youthful, mild-mannered features they were set in, bored into Elphin's. 'This sorcerer must be more powerful than your intelligence suggested.'
'Thank you, Taliesin, I think I could work that out for myself.' He ran a hand through recently cropped blond hair and sighed.
The bard shrugged, and bent his head over the harp again. 'Suit yourself,' came the muffled reply. 'Of course, it's a wise man who keeps a bard at his side when he has no use for his opinion...'
Elphin sighed heavily, walked over to the bard's side, and perched on the edge of the table, inadvertently sending the reports flying. He caught one of the durafilm documents before it rolled off onto the ground and placed it carefully back onto the table. 'All right. What is your opinion?'
Taliesin remained bent over the harp, humming softly under his breath, still tuning the strings.
'Tal - '
More humming. A quiet 'A-ha!' followed by a heartfelt 'bugger' as a string snapped. He fished in the pocket of his long black coat for a replacement, and began the task of restringing the instrument, studiously ignoring the young king.
'All right, all right... I'm sorry. Taliesin, please... what do you think?'
A wide, but thin-lipped mouth twitched into a slight smile not quite hidden by a neatly trimmed beard. 'Well, since you ask, I think you should take a closer look.' Standing, he swept the long panels of his coat out of the way and placed the harp reverently on his chair. 'Vivienne and I did a little investigating of our own whilst you were scouting the area. It seems that there have been some very strange goings on around here over the past week or two. Disappearing beasts, villagers vanishing in the night... not to mention one absolutely classic eyewitness account of a headless horseman terrorising a baker and his family before it vanished with the dawn.'
'Ghost stories?' Elphin scoffed.
Taliesin fixed him with a hard stare. 'Well personally I thought it might well be that your rogue sorcerer had just managed to get some old S'rax jesseraunte working again, but if it makes you feel better to think it's a ghost...' His expression was wide-eyed and innocent, and Elphin only hesitated a moment before laughing.
'A functioning jesseraunte isn't something I'd like in the hands of a man like Marcellus, even if it is missing a head.'
'Neither are the six complete and fully functional suits that attacked the village of Acadie last night, before we arrived.' Taliesin patted Elphin on the shoulder as the younger man started. 'I thought that might get your attention. Especially since the man I spoke to said they used no weapons he'd seen before - and he used to be an armourer at the fortress before it was abandoned.'
Elphin tugged at the battered carapace of his own powered jesseraunte, the ink-black armour charred, its ablative coating flaking in places from their last battle. 'I hope you recruited him,' he said ruefully. 'The telemetry controls on this thing are just about finished. Geraint wouldn't have been able to walk the suit back if anything had happened to me out there.' He shrugged out of the top half of the carapace, and let a hand trail over his pauldren device: the coiled serpent of Gwynedd's High Kings.
'Try shrinking a bit,' Tal said dryly. 'Getting replacement parts might not be so difficult if you were less of a mountain!' He ducked a thrown map with graceful ease, and monarch and bard both broke into laughter as a puzzled Vivienne stuck her head into the tent's open flap, wondering what all the noise was about.
Now: "Take me to your..."
Taliesin pushed Vivienne behind him and into the dark haven of a niche, as a heavy tread echoed down the passage towards them. Looking neither left nor right, the armoured figure strode past their hiding place, lurching a little uncertainly as it walked. Taliesin stared after the figure as it receded along the passage. He stood in the middle of the corridor, seemingly unheeding of the danger.
'Tal - what do you think you're doing?' Vivienne hissed. 'Anything could be along here!'
He shook his head, and took a step in the direction the figure had gone. 'Did you notice? It didn't seem to be in complete control,' he mused. Vivienne clicked her tongue in irritation.
'Maybe he's injured. Or if it's empty, maybe the controls are on the fritz?'
Taliesin shook his head. 'No... a control error would seem more - regular. And while an injured operator might be a possibility, there's just something about the way that thing moved that didn't look right.' He squared his shoulders and stared down at her. 'I've just got a bad feeling about this.'
Vivienne wasn't looking at him, he noticed belatedly. She was staring above their heads. Following the direction of her gaze, he looked up.
'Ah,' he said eventually, staring into the red lens on the hovering tentacled globe above them. 'I don't suppose you could possibly consider just asking us to accompany you?'
The cacodemon chuckled, and a red beam lanced out from the single red eye amidst the confusion of tentacles, taking first Vivienne, then Taliesin.
'I didn't think so,' the bard said quietly as he slumped to the ground.
In which our heroes awaken...
Light. Bright light.
Vivienne blinked, and tried to take a look at her surroundings, handicapped by a throbbing headache and the lingering after image left by the light. Beside her, she could sense Taliesin, still unconscious.
Please, just be out cold... Rolling over, she placed a hand to his neck, sighing in relief as she felt the double pulse beating strongly under her fingertips. Something wrong with this scenario. What?
She wasn't bound. Her hands and legs were free, as were Tal's. And they were in the middle of a cluttered workroom of some kind. A Hammer movie's version of a mad magician's lair or weird scientist's lab, she thought, aware that no-one else in this world had ever heard of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. Gods help her, it even had a stuffed crocodilian hanging from the ceiling...
The man sitting in the chair watching her looked more like Nicol Williamson's "Merlin" in Excalibur. Which was taking the piss, really, under the circumstances, she told an uncaring universe mentally.
The universe didn't reply.
She took a step forward. And banged her nose on an invisible field.
'Ow!' She looked down. Her toes were just touching the inner edge of a white chalk circle. Inscribed within its confines were a five pointed star and more white chalked squiggles than she was happy seeing in one place.
It didn't help that some of them moved as she looked at them.
'You can't get out.'
So help her, he even sounded like Nicol Williamson. 'If he starts chanting "Annal nadrach, uthas bethud, dochiel niente",' she told the universe mentally, you and I are really going to have words.
'I can see that.' Escape for now a null option, she turned her attention back to Taliesin, who was just coming round. 'Marcellus, isn't it? Now you've got us, what are you going to do with us?' She helped her companion to his feet.
The man shrugged. 'I wasn't planning on doing anything with you. But it seems my allies have an interest in you. Both of you.'
A door on the far side of the cluttered room opened, to admit three of the S'rax jesserauntes. They approached with an inhuman mechanical smoothness that made Vivienne shiver, watching them.
'Nice collection,' Taliesin nodded to the now stationary armoured suits that had taken up a position beside and behind the sorcerer. 'Do they tap-dance as well?'
'You will be silent.'
The voice came from the com unit in the gorget of the largest suit, that stood to the left of the chair. It advanced slowly towards them, the arm brought up in front, armed with a pulse rifle. Even allowing for the distortion of the microphone, the voice was staccato, mechanical in intonation.
Familiar, somehow... as if every syllable were pronounced with a full stop after it...
Taliesin placed a hand on the barrier raised by the circle of power they were standing in. 'Silence isn't my forte, I'm afraid.' He placed his hands in his pockets. 'Want to try again?' He grinned at the sorcerer, and began scuffing at the ground with the toe of one boot. Vivienne caught a quick glimpse of what he was doing before he swept the panels of his coat around, flicking them around casually.
'What's in the suits?' she asked the sorcerer, hoping to distract their captors further. It was the nearest jesseraunte that answered.
'The prisoners will be silent.'
That voice was really beginning to sound familiar now...
'You will come with us,' it stated flatly. All three of the jesserauntes now had their weapons trained on them. Taliesin took a deep breath, and shrugged.
'I don't think so.' He brought his left hand up and sketched a sigil in the air in front of him. Marcellus fell back in his chair with a cry of pain as his wards dissolved. The jesserauntes fired blindly at Taliesin and Vivienne. They missed, and Tal grabbed Vivienne, dragging her out of the disrupted circle. A hand diving into a pocket in that long black coat came out triumphantly with a small device that he threw towards the centre of the room. It began emitting a thick green smoke, obscuring the air behind them. Choking from the fumes, they made their way out, Vivienne finding the door more by memory than sight, Taliesin at her side. Once clear, they simply ran in the direction they were facing.
It just happened to lead deeper into the bowels of the Castle, but at least it was clear of mad magicians and walking, talking suits of armour.
Meanwhile, back at the lair of the Evil Magician...
'After them, you fools!' Marcellus finally managed to choke out as the smoke dispersed, filtered from the room by the castle's automatic systems. The three jesserauntes simply turned to face him, as one, weapons levelled. One brought its force-sword up until the faint vibration of the "blade" could just be felt by the sorcerer, moving ever closer to his neck, just touching the edge of his silver helm. He pulled away sharply. The demon's arm followed, faster than he would have believed possible, the sword blocking his path.
'You have failed.' It rasped. 'Your containment was inadequate.'
Marcellus drew a sigil in the air; Sefirath. It should have restrained the demon inside the suit.
The blade, visible only by the faint heat shimmer of the air molecules around the weapon, moved closer.
'Your pathetic rituals cannot contain us,' the largest suit's voice grated on his already strained nerves. Marcellus swallowed hard, and tried to ignore the cold trickle of sweat that was running down the back of his neck.
''We will seek, locate and destroy the prisoners. You will continue your work. Remain here. Do not attempt to disobey.' Two of the jesserauntes left the room, leaving Marcellus alone with the third, wondering where it had all gone so horribly wrong...
Haven't we met before?
'Are you sure this is a good idea?' Taliesin eyed the large gothic style arch ahead of them with a wary gaze. Vivienne chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully.
'Well you were the one who ran in this direction,' she pointed out, quite reasonably, she thought. 'Besides, the vats shouldn't be in operation, should they? Marcellus is not Keeper-trained, as far as Elphin's men could determine. And all the tissue banks are gone. So why -'
'-are they powered up and producing?' Tal finished. He swept past her, heading for the pulsing blue glow that illuminated the vast caverns that would lie beyond the arch. 'Come on, keep up!'
Vivienne muttered something uncomplimentary under her breath and followed in his wake, wishing for a weapon a little more substantial than the force knife she'd picked as they left the magician's lair. She closed her fingers around the warm metal of the hilt, thumb poised over the safety lock. At least it was something...
Tal stood stock still under the archway, staring at the scene that lay before him. Rank after rank of the bubbling, groaning tanks stretched out to fill the massive underbelly of the fortress. Trailing umbilicals pulsed obscenely as they snaked their way across every available surface. They coiled, twisting and writhing with an almost hypnotic rhythm as they fed the membranous "vats" with the vital nutrients and more arcane chemicals required for the sustenance of the creatures grown within.
Usually, the artificial wombs were used to grow the organic components of cybrids like the ornithopters, or the untiring cybrorses. Some Caers still used them to keep the genetic legacy of the founding knights alive.
Tal took a step closer to the nearest sac-like vat, staring through the thin, wrinkled membrane that contained the nutritive fluids and the creature or creatures growing within. Inside the heart of the vast sac, something stirred, as if aware of his scrutiny. Curiosity compelling him, he moved closer, to within a few inches of the membrane.
He jumped back abruptly as the creature within rushed towards him, causing the membrane to bulge outwards, stretched taut, almost to breaking point. A confused flurry of impressions: a writhing mass of tentacles, a shapeless green/grey mass suspended in amniotic fluid - and Vivienne's horrified squeak as she saw what was inside the sac.
What was inside all two hundred sacs that filled the bowels of Caer Duergar.
He pulled her into a gap between two of the sacs, avoiding making contact with the slimy exterior. 'You know what these things are?' he asked, urgently. She nodded, looking pale and shaken.
'If they're what I think they are, they shouldn't be here.' She was whispering. 'Didn't you recognise them?'
He shook his head. 'Should I?'
'That's an embryo Dalek in there,' she told him. 'I'd know those evil little psychopaths anywhere, even without their sink plungers.' When he gave her another blank look, she sighed. 'Look, they usually get around inside special machines. They look sort of like five-foot tall pepperpots with a sink plunger and an egg whisk on the front.'
'There's a distinct lack of a relevant cultural reference in that description.'
'You have far too many gaps in that memory of yours,' Vivienne told him tartly. Tal grinned at her.
'So we keep discovering. Are these things dangerous?' Memory was stirring... but it was deep... too deep. He dismissed it. He could deal with this in his own frame of reference, for now. And if not, he could rely on Vivienne to fill in the gaps.
He crossed his fingers.
'They must be using the S'rax battlesuits, instead of their travel machines,' Vivienne said quietly. 'But how did they get here?'
'I think perhaps Marcellus the Mighty can answer that question,' he replied. 'Shall we see if we can persuade him to do so?'
She grinned up at him. 'Only if I get to play "bad interrogator"' 'After the last time?'
Obligatory tooling up for business scene...
'Is that what you described?'
Tal pointed to the squat, lumpen, dome-shaped object that was pushed, discarded, into the corner of the armoury they'd broken into. Vivienne, still swearing over the controls of the long neglected pulse rifle that she was trying to repair, nodded.
'A combination of life-support, weapons platform and travel machine.'
Tal walked around it a few times, hands clasped behind his back. Looking at it intently, before stepping back, one hand rubbing his beard absently. 'This was the terror of an entire galaxy?'
Looking up from her task, she grinned. 'And a few others. Xenocidal, psychopathic and totally single minded.'
Tal examined the casing carefully. Finding the control that opened the top, he flipped it over and took a look at the inner workings. 'Fascinating. Although sometimes I think the technology of that dimension is woefully inefficient. There's far too much that can go wrong with this. And they look totally ridiculous.'
Vivienne snapped the maintenance panel on the rifle shut with a satisfied "hah!" She walked over to his side, and peered at the Dalek casing. 'You know,' she said eventually, 'You're right, they do, don't they?'
'Those S'rax suits, however, do not.' Tal said softly. 'But why would they use unfamiliar technology rather than their own?'
'They're very adaptable. Maybe their machines don't work here? It would make sense. I've seen them adapt to local conditions before, on Exxilon - and bio-technology is one of their specialities.'
'Given the capabilities of a fully-functional Caer, that makes me nervous.' Tal looked at the weapon in Vivienne's hands. 'Are you sure that thing will work?'
'Trust me, I've had plenty of practice over the last few months. And I'm a fairly good shot.'
'I know you are,' he said quietly. 'I'm more worried about how good they are.'
'Too good,' Vivienne told him grimly.
"We have ways of making you talk"
There was just one jesseraunte guarding the sorcerer when they reached the door of the chamber. Marcellus was bent over the circle on the floor, presumably restoring the integrity of the glyphs after Tal's act of vandalism earlier. Vivienne snorted mentally, peering over Tal's shoulder at the scene. What sort of idiot casts the spell on the outer edge of the pentagram...?
'I wonder what he wants with that?' Tal whispered. Vivienne shrugged, before remembering that he couldn't see her.
'That's your field, not mine. What now?'
Taliesin moved silently out of her way. 'Can you get a clear shot at that Dalek here?'
She nodded, and he patted her shoulder. Vivienne brought the pulse rifle up to her shoulder. Sighting carefully, she fired, the only sound a slight "szzzzap" of super heated air as the plasma spat out of the muzzle. Dead on target. The jesseraunte collapsed to the floor with an audible thud as the central torso area was instantly slagged.
'I wouldn't...' Vivienne warned the sorcerer, who was reaching for the athame on the table beside him. She stepped into the room, covering him with the rifle. 'Keep your hands where I can see them. In fact, palms up, on the table, and don't even twitch a finger.' Taliesin nipped past her, and immediately knelt to get a better look at the creature within the jesseraunte - or rather, what was left of it. Vivienne could see his grimace of distaste as he poked the remains with a stylus.
'Fascinating. They've completely adapted the interface inside the unit. Internalised the telemetry protocols as well, I think, linking them directly into the creature inside. Remarkable.'
'Tal, please - later?' Vivienne hissed at him.
'Oh. Right.' He got to his feet and approached the nervously sweating sorcerer, distracting the man's gaze, which had been fixed with all the intensity of a rabbit facing a fox, from Vivienne. 'I can keep an eye on him from here. Just watch the corridor for visitors?' He gestured towards the door. 'Now,' he turned his attention back to Marcellus. 'Why don't you and I have a little talk about just what it is you're trying to do here? And where those creatures come from?' He picked up a leather-bound volume from the table. 'Enciervanul Doamnisoar?' He tutted and began rifling through the pages with an abstracted air. 'Not the most reliable text on the summoning of demons, despite the title.'
'And what would you know about such matters?' Marcellus sneered. His hands moved, one raising as if to point, and Taliesin slammed the book down hard onto his fingers, eliciting a howl of pain from the sorcerer.
'She said keep them still. I'd thank you to obey her - I get a little twitchy when people don't do as they're told.' He dropped the book onto the table. Hands in pockets, he walked around the table, careful to avoid the re-drawn seal that occupied the floor. Pale green eyes never wavered in their intense stare, fixed on the dark grey eyes of the sorcerer. 'I'm guessing that you attempted a major summoning, am I right?' He leaned over the table, the amiable smile on his face at odds with the hardness of his eyes. Marcellus swallowed hard. 'Am I right?' Taliesin asked softly. 'Answer me.' His use of bardic Voice caught the sorcerer unawares.
'Yes. A demon - from beyond the Pale.'
From the doorway, Vivienne snorted. 'Some demon. A squishy green blob with no backbone and a bad attitude.'
'Oh?' Taliesin tapped the cover of the book with his left hand. 'Sounds about right to me. Now, what happened?'
'The demons' armour would not work. It required other means of protection. I brought others through from its realm to aid it. In return -' he swallowed hard.
'Yes?' Tal prompted.
'It - they - said they would bring the fortress back on line.'
'At a guess that's what you wanted a demon for in the first place,' Vivienne suggested. 'If the Daleks are the ones that brought the core back on line, not Catweasel over there, we've got a big problem.'
'Biotechnology, you said?' he mused. 'Could they re-write the Protocols?'
She shrugged. 'My guess would be yes. They'd be more than capable of working out how to repair the suspensor generators, and - uh-oh, company.' She ducked back into the room. 'Two jesserauntes, armed.'
'Well they'd look silly without any,' Taliesin quipped. Vivienne shot him a filthy look. He grabbed the sorcerer by the scruff of his robes, and gave him a push away from the table. Marcellus struggled, but found the slim bard stronger than he'd thought.
Taliesin's grip on his collar tightened, causing the man to choke. He released him again, just enough to let him breathe. As Marcellus gasped air into abused lungs, Taliesin commanded him again.
'Show me another exit from this room.' Caught again without a readied defence, the sorcerer complied, pointing at an ornate panel on the north wall. Tal found the control for the concealed door scant seconds before the approaching mechanical tread of the Dalek's jesserauntes reached the door to the room. Vivienne closed it behind her just as they entered, and let go of a breath she hadn't even realised she'd been holding.
"You want to do WHAT?"
With Tal occupied holding onto their prisoner, it was Vivienne who was left to watch the goings-on back in Marcellus' room. Like every good secret passage, this one came fully equipped with the regulation spyhole in the door, although, as usual, it was built for someone a little taller than her five foot four-and-a-half, and she had to stand on tiptoe to look out of it into the room.
The Daleks were examining their fallen unit. They straightened awkwardly from a kneeling position, but she noticed that their movements were remarkably fluid in the armour. Of course, they'd been bipedal, humanoid once, hadn't they? She'd been present at their birth, in a way...
'Alert all armoured units,' the larger of the two rasped. 'Humans are to be captured and eliminated.' The other unit bowed. 'Increase security on the Core,' the leader continued. 'Progress on the flight circuit adaptations must not be interrupted.'
'I obey.' It turned smartly on its heel and left the room. Left alone, the larger Dalek began walking slowly around, gauntlets moving over the items on Marcellus' table. It paused at one point, and greyish tentacles snaked out of the torso section of the armour, picking up the abandoned copy of Enciervanul Doamnisoar, flicking through the pages with a surprising dexterity before discarding the volume. Well that's new, Vivienne thought to herself. Never seen them do that before. Didn't think they could...
She noticed additional sensors on the helmet as its "gaze" swept over the room, passing over the panel behind which they hid without a second glance. Visual only, then, and audio. Not heat sensitive, thank the gods. With what looked like a very human shrug, it too turned and stalked out of the room, its heavy tread receding down the corridor. She breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to Taliesin, a barely visible shape in the semi-darkness of the passageway, partially hidden behind the sorcerer, whom he had a tight hold of.
They emerged from the hiding place cautiously, and Taliesin released the sorcerer, who muttered something under his breath, straightening his robe. 'Oh do shut up,' Taliesin said, absently. There was no command in his tone, but it was enough. Marcellus subsided, slumping miserably against the wall, all bluff and bluster gone.
Vivienne rounded on the hapless sorcerer angrily. Just what did you think you were doing? Idiot.'
Tal laid a hand on his shoulder, patting it with mock reassurance.
'There there, Marcellus, I'm sure you'd like to make up for it, now wouldn't you?'
'Splendid. Now, I think you know the easiest and least guarded way to the Core from here?' Tal smiled winningly at the discomforted sorcerer.
Marcellus nodded, reluctantly.
'Tal - a word?' Tal sauntered over nonchalantly, hands in pockets.
'My question exactly,' she whispered. 'Just what are you planning? Taking them on single handed?'
He shrugged. 'What do you suggest?'
'Get out, call Elphin, wait for the army.'
Tal smiled at her, and flicked the tip of her nose. 'It would take too long. By the time they got here, and through the defences these Daleks, would have this place fully armed and operational.' He turned to Marcellus. 'I take it they are working on the flight circuits and the weaponry?'
'Thought so.' He turned back to Vivienne, his amiable smile broadening. 'So, we take out the generators, and while they're trying to keep the basic systems online, we get out, then call Elphin and get him to storm the place in his usual enthusiastic fashion. What could be wrong with that?'
'You want a list?'
'You have a better plan? I thought not,' he said, as she remained silent. 'Come on, we've been through worse!'
'I know, I've still got the scars,' she muttered to his back as he breezed back to Marcellus, coat tails wafting behind him.
Evil little plans...
'Sensors detect humanoid lifeforms in the mage's chamber.'
The Dalek Prime turned to face its subordinate.
'Query: "humanoid" not "human"?'
'Biomass is not fully human in origin,' the subordinate replied. 'Three lifeforms detected: One human male, matching the Summoner. A humanaoid female: data retrieval suggests subject matches to within 96% the description of one known to travel the Ka Fariq Gatri, as described in data assimilated on Exxilon and Skaro. Match incomplete - sensors detect anomalous DNA and RNA readings from the lifeform. Conclusion: Subject is not fully human.'
'Noted.' The Dalek Prime grated. A trace of annoyance coursed through its consciousness. The Ka Fariq Gatri? Here? Impossible. However, there were more important concerns for now. 'The third intruder?'
If the Dalek inside the jesseraunte had been able to, it might have shuffled its feet. 'Analysis suggests subject is not human. Close scans indicate twin cardio-vascular system and triple-helical DNA structure.'
'Conjecture:' said the Dalek Prime. 'Is the intruder The Ka Fariq Gatri?'
''Unknown. Anomalies in the comparison to the data files suggest differences in the genetic structure not consistent with any of the thirteen known deviations that individual has exhibited. Conclusion: Subject is not Ka Fariq Gatri, but is in some way related.'
'Despatch the sorcerer's organic sentinels to apprehend and destroy,' the Dalek Prime told it. 'Dalek units are to be recalled for work on the final stages of the project. Human male is to be retaken alive if possible.'
The subordinate unit left, marching out of the room, leaving the Dalek Prime staring down into the heart of the massive engines of the fortress. Dalek units, many now installed in the powered bipedal suits they had adapted, worked diligently around the massive structure - part organic, part mechanical; a masterpiece of genetic and cyborg engineering that (to itself) the Dalek could only marvel at. That such a machine could fall so easily into their hands...
Had it features of its own, it might have smiled at that point. The humans hadn't even used a half of the cybrid's capabilities. The brain of the Core and the massive flight engines that controlled and powered the suspensor fields had so much more potential, in the right... grasp...
Its gauntlets tightened on the railing they rested on, crushing it like paper.
Slight change of plan...
'You know,' Tal said as they walked past the circle still half-finished in the centre of the room, 'I can't help feeling that formula looks familiar...'
'It's nothing,' the sorcerer muttered quickly. Vivienne poked him in the back with the business end of her rifle. 'Just a summoning,' he added quickly, turning to give her a filthy look.
Tal knelt to take a closer look. 'Glyphs for opening, stability and channelling...' He glared up at the nervous mage. 'Why would you need to carry on summoning these creatures when they're busy breeding more downstairs?'
A stony silence.
Tal traced the outline of one of the half-finished glyphs. 'This is only used in blood rites...' he mused. Marcellus, although taller than the bard, took a step back as Tal advanced on him. 'You don't need blood rites for a lesser summoning. However...'
'What?' Vivienne really didn't like the way this was going.
'A permanent channel to their own dimension would theoretically give them access to some of their own systems, at a guess. Well?' The question was addressed to the cowering sorcerer, but Tal didn't wait for an answer, and pushed him out of the room ahead of him, leaving Vivienne to trail as usual in his wake. 'Come on. Marcellus here is going to show us where his demons are lurking...'
'What about the circle?' Vivienne panted, jogging to keep up.
A loud humming filled the air at that moment, accompanied by a thrumming vibration of the fortress walls and floor.
'The suspensor engines went back on line,' Tal shouted over the noise. 'We've got less time than I thought!'
A blast narrowly missed them, taking a chunk of masonry out of the wall and showering Taliesin and Marcellus with dust and debris. All three ducked around a corner, avoiding the hovering cacodemons bearing down on them.
'Oh, just great,' Vivienne muttered. Poking her head around the corner, she fired wildly at the demons, ducking back as another floating horror aimed its baleful glare at her. 'Three of them!'
There was a heartfelt expletive from Taliesin.
'My thoughts exactly,' she said, then realised that that wasn't what he'd been referring to. Marcellus was missing. 'Oh.' The note and frequency of the hum changed, becoming more intense. 'Never rains but it pours,' she muttered. 'Just for once, could events just happen one at a time?'
'It loses dramatic impact,' Tal told her. 'I think the universe is just a bard itself, at heart.'
Vivienne snorted. 'Or only an over-enthusiastic copy-editor with delusions of grandeur.' Another shot.
'Never mind. Tal, we're pinned down, and I'm running low here...'
'Can you get the access panel to the power pack open?'
'Yes, but... Oh.' She grinned. 'Just give me a minute.' A few quick adjustments to the power supply, and the weapon began to heat up. She waited while Taliesin gave her a countdown as the cacodemons, finally realising that they were no longer under attack, advanced towards them.
On cue, she threw the overloading weapon around the corner, and followed Tal in a dead run down the corridor as fast as she could. They only just made it to the next corner as the rifle exploded, shaking the corridor and knocking them both to the floor. Disentangling themselves, Tal and Vivienne both stared back down the passageway, choking slightly on the dust and the slight odour of roasted cacodemon.
'Oops.' Vivienne said quietly, waving a hand in front of her face to clear the smoke away. She coughed ostentatiously.
'You know, the next time I have a bright idea like that...' Taliesin began, helping her to her feet.
'Remind me of how stupid it is.'
On cue, an alarm system went off, with an eerie, ear splitting wail, which added to the general cacophony already echoing through the fortress from the suspensor generators.
'Now what?' Vivienne asked, still blinking dust out of her watering eyes.
Tal stood in the centre of the passage, turning to the direction they'd been running. 'We find the suspensor field generator. If we make sure that this thing can't take off, it'll be fair game for Elphin and his men.'
'And the weapons systems?'
'Later. If it takes off, we're stuffed anyway, to use a phrase you're so fond of.'
Still coughing, she tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, as he stared ahead, lost in thought.
'Would this be a good time to point out that we're now weaponless, unless we take a detour back to the armoury?'
'They'll probably have found it broken into by now, and have it guarded. We'll think of something.'
'Oh goody,' she said sourly to his dusty, retreating back. She brushed herself down and followed him. 'You pick now to get heroic. What do you plan to do, talk them to death?' She hadn't expected him to hear her over the noise, but a hand gesture over his shoulder reminded her that his hearing could be far sharper than she gave it credit for. 'And the same to you,' she muttered.
Turning the tables
'I didn't tell them anything, I swear!' Marcellus grovelled on the floor before the towering shape of the jesseraunte inhabited by the chief of the demons he'd summoned. All thought of mastering these creatures had fled. All he wanted to do now was survive the night.
'Irrelevant,' The demon said flatly. 'You will be held here until the intruders are eliminated.'
Marcellus breathed a sigh of relief, which was cut short as a grey/green tentacle slithered out of the front of the armour and around his neck, choking him. Only when he slumped, almost unconscious, did it release him, pulled back into the armour, which then came to attention, looming over him. 'You will serve the Dalek race until your usefulness is at an end.'
'I-I- thank you,' the sorcerer stammered but the armoured demon had already turned away, ignoring him. Backing away, he made his way over to a corner of the observation gallery that overlooked the massive generators. Below, complex organic circuitry and the bio-mechanical systems were being altered by scores of the demons he'd once thought to control - demons both in and out of the powered armour they'd adapted for their own use when their own had proved so ineffective in this realm. Watching them operate so expertly on the intricate systems, he shivered, despite the lack of any breeze.
..meanwhile, our hero and heroine...
'This is really stupid.'
'So you keep saying. Pass me that helmet, will you?'
Vivienne handed him the part requested, and stood back to look at the result. 'This is never going to work.'
'You know, I'm sure I've done this before. Well, what do you think?' His voice was muffled by the full helm he'd just locked into place, topping off a hastily re-assembled jesseraunte - put together from various parts found discarded in several rooms along the way. Tal had had the idea after finding the relatively undamaged helmet.
'It's never going to stand up to close scrutiny,' Vivienne told him eventually. She chewed her bottom lip. 'But I suppose it doesn't have to.' She sighed heavily. 'Oh well. Lead on, MacDuff!'
'Mac-? Oh, never mind, tell me later. You first. Remember, you're my prisoner.'
'In your dreams!' She got a push in the small of the back for her quip. 'Ow!' She turned a glare on him as his gauntleted hand closed over her arm too tightly.
'Sorry,' came the muffled voice, 'it takes some getting used to, with the systems offline.' The grip relaxed, and she let him push her down the corridor. The fire alarm had finally stopped, but the thrum of the generators was getting steadily louder as they progressed towards the heart of the fortress.
Saving the day...
'Halt!' The grey jesseraunte stood in the corridor, completely blocking their way. One slick metal arm pointed at them, revealing the business end of an inbuilt disrupter. Vivienne, standing in the line of fire, swallowed hard with a suddenly dry throat. 'State your purpose,' the Dalek grated.
'Prisoner being escorted to main staging area for interrogation.' Tal's voice, through the helmet and the amplifier in the suit, was a pretty good approximation of the Daleks' staccato monotone. Vivienne only hoped it was good enough to fool them.
It seemed to be. The Dalek-occupied suit stepped back, lowering its weapon. 'Proceed,' it said flatly. Vivienne staggered forwards as Tal prodded her in the back, and made a mental note to take every bruise out of his hide when they got out of this.
The location of the main area the Daleks were using was actually quite easy to find - the lighting in the fortress was fully operational in the inhabited areas. And there was the ever-present hum of the engines at the heart of the vast Caer, like a giant heartbeat that grew stronger and louder as they progressed. For Vivienne it was like standing next to a massive drum being pounded, her diaphragm vibrating with every beat.
Quite frankly, it was starting to make her feel a bit ill.
They passed more Daleks along the way, but no further challenges were issued. 'Not very imaginative, are they?' Tal muttered in her ear after one encounter.
'You have no idea,' she whispered back, lowering her voice still further as another suit of armour passed them without a second glance. 'Although it's not all good.'
'If we're captured, and get really unlucky, they'll probably read us some of their poetry.'
'That bad?' he asked.
'Worse than yours,' she quipped back.
That earned her another prod in the small of the back.
They emerged onto a walkway that overlooked the vast generators, running the entire circumference of the cavernous room. Trailing umbilicals draped between the walls, floor and ceiling and the dark, slick surfaced mass of the generator - the engine at the heart of the fortress. Daleks both in and out of their armour swarmed over its surface and around its bulk, tending the organic swell of the device. Some busied themselves at the cybridised interfaces that jutted out from the walls at intervals, making adjustments with dextrous tentacles. Others were attaching new coils of cable to the mass.
Taliesin, moving awkwardly in his borrowed armour, leaned over the balcony rail to get a better look. 'I think I see a way to put this out of action,' he whispered to Vivienne, eventually. 'Pass me that force knife.' She obliged, but couldn't keep her concern from her eyes. 'What are you planning? Surely you're not going down there -'
'Trust me, I'll be safe enough.' His voice was still muffled by the helmet. With his face hidden, she had no clue as to his real mood. 'You, however, can get clear. Those vents over there-' he pointed to one that had a partly open valve, presumably damaged. 'Should take you to the cooling shafts - you should be able to sneak down easily enough.'
She opened her mouth to object, but he silenced her, a metal-sheathed finger touching her lips. He fiddled with the visor with his other hand, and raised it, smiling at her.
'Sssh. No argument. Go. And when you're clear, signal Elphin.'
'Go.' The command caught her by surprise, her body obeying instantly. She crawled into the opening of the vent through its partly paralysed valve. Bastard, he dared to do that to her?
Anger quickly gave way to common sense. Damn him, always had to be right, didn't he? She gritted her teeth and crawled onwards, cursing under her breath as her elbows scraped the narrow side of the shaft. Right now the only thing she could do for him was get clear and call Elphin.
But boy, was she going to take this out of Tal's hide later...
Taliesin made his way down the stairs that led to the chamber below. It wasn't quite so easy as it looked. Especially, he mused, when you're trying to be stealthy, and yet not look as if you are.
He reached the chamber floor without incident, and marched as purposefully as he could to what looked to be a likely candidate for a major power coupling. With the force knife held clumsily in a gauntleted hand, he bent over the pulsing artery-like conduits, looking for a vulnerable spot.
With uncanny precision, the Universe chose that moment to bring his lucky streak to a screeching halt. Slowly, awkwardly, he straightened up, smiling ruefully behind the concealing faceplate of the armour, as three armoured Daleks surrounded him, weapons levelled.
'You will remove the helmet,' one of the creatures informed him.
Lifting the helmet off, he let it fall to the floor instead of giving it to the creature awaiting it. 'Oops. Sorry.' As it stooped to pick it up, he took the opportunity to palm the force knife in his gauntleted fist.
Another Dalek moved closer to him, and handling him rather roughly, examined the weapons systems on the suit.
'All systems inactive,' it told the creature now standing in front of the bard. Tal resisted the urge to brush the lock of sweat-dampened red hair out of his eyes, and flashed a beaming smile at the Dalek.
'It's an overused phrase, but "take me to your leader?"'
The Dalek regarded him impassively through the blank visor. 'I am the Prime here. You are the one the sorcerer calls "Taliesin."
No question in the flat tone, he noted. Just a statement of fact. 'I've been called worse.'
'The woman - your companion. Where is she?'
Tal gave it wide-eyed stare. 'Woman? There was a woman?' He looked around in mock puzzlement. 'Oh yes, so there was. You know, I knew there was something missing...'
'Silence!' The Dalek Prime brought the force sword in its hands level with Tal's throat. Tal stared at the device, and shrugged.
'Actually, I think you'll find there's no such thing. An absence of sound would be almost impossible for a living being to produce, under the best...' The sword point vibrated against the skin of his neck and he swallowed, falling silent.
The Dalek Prime gestured to a subordinate. 'Remove the prisoner to a holding cell. Have it prepared for interrogation.'
The jesseraunte closed in on him. Taliesin ducked as it tried to grab hold of him. Activating the force knife he thrust it into one of the slim gaps between the carapace and the arms. It backed away, flailing awkwardly. Tal jumped out of the way, bumping into the generator. The force knife, held clumsily in his gauntlet, caught the trailing conduit. Seeing the trickle of acid that seeped out, damaging the part of his gauntlet that it touched, Tal sliced the blade deep into the swollen node at the junction of the umbilical and the generator. The Dalek Prime was caught in a spray of corrosive fluids as the node burst. It shrieked as the jesseraunte's systems struggled to cope, vital systems shutting down. The armoured form floundered awkwardly, fielded by its subordinates. The nearest creatures hastened to assist their leader, and Tal saw his chance. Running as fast as he could in the makeshift armour, he headed for the nearest exit.
He managed to grab a force-sword off one demon as it tried to stop him. Inelegantly, handicapped by his armour, he brought the vibrating energy blade down and through the torso of the jesseraunte, cleaving it and the creature within.
The tussle had brought him closer to one of the cybrid interfaces for the great generators. Hoping his memory of the Caers' flight systems was correct, he thrust the still-vibrating blade into the node, where it stuck point-first, and began burrowing into the heart of the device. A tortured scream split the air. Tal, lumbering away as fast as he could, wished it luck competing to be heard over the Daleks' grating shrieks.
Now, to get out of here...
Preferably in one piece....
The best laid plans...
Vivienne scrambled out of the ventilation shaft just as an ear splitting scream reverberated through the ducts. She winced, and caught off-balance by the sudden noise, slid the rest of the way down the underside of the great fortress. She landed in a heap on the ground, staring up at a knobbly outgrowth on the base of the castle, and tried to get her breath back.
Once she was able to get back to her feet, she made a run for the trees, and their communications gear, stowed carefully under a small holly bush a few yards into the forest.
'Broadsword calling Danny-Boy' she began, a little facetiously, speaking into the palm-com.
'Vivienne?' Elphin's voice sounded a little strained. Or maybe it was just a poor channel. 'Where in the name of Arawn have you two been?'
'Shopping.' She replied. 'One flying fortress, ready for delivery, but you'd better hurry. I think they've almost got the engines on-line, unless Tal's managed to stop them.'
'Where is he? We're on our way.'
'Still inside. Which is why-'
'I'll be there. Get ready.' Elphin signed off tersely. She pocketed the 'com and snuck back to the edge of the forest, checking the plain between the trees and the Caer for signs of Taliesin. Even with the monocular, she couldn't see any trace of him yet.
'Come on, come on... don't make me go back in there to rescue you...'
She looked up as the flittering beat of ornithopter wings increased to a steady slapping as Elphin's squad arrived: eight of the carrier 'thopters, each capable of carrying twenty men. They circled overhead, and began their descent behind Elphin's smaller ornithopter with its distinctive markings: black, with the Dragon's Head of the High Tagel in gold. Its four massive Dragonfly-like wings fluttered delicately as the great cybrids settled on the plain, and Vivienne ran to meet the King as he left his vessel, running easily towards her, taking massive strides in his black-enamelled jesseraunte.
'Is he out yet?' Elphin shouted. Reaching her he tried to sweep her into a hug, which she ducked.
'Not in armour, El!' He blushed, and settled instead for a light pat on her back that nearly floored her.
'Tal?' he asked again. She shook her head. 'Damn.' Vivienne followed him back to the cluster of 'thopters, giving him a quick rundown of the situation.
Elphin's men gathered in the shadow of the carriers: one hundred and sixty fully trained knights of the Order of the Dragon. That should be more than enough to give those pepperpots a nasty shock, she thought, glancing at the Armsmen handing out pulse rifles, grenade launchers, force swords and -
'Jesus!' She stared at Geraint as Elphin's sergeant strolled past. 'I thought Elphin confiscated those!'
Geraint smiled at her evilly, and shouldered the heavy neural whip, making sure it stayed clear of his chain sword. 'They got time off for good behaviour.' He looked around. 'So, where's Warbling Boy?'
'Here, actually' Tal lurched into view, ducked Elphin's enthusiastic embrace and smiled at a heartily relieved Vivienne. He leant against Elphin's 'thopter, breathing hard.
'Did you stop them?' Elphin and Vivienne asked at the same time.
Over the rising wail of the Caer's tortured generators, they could barely hear his reply.
'I sabotaged the flight circuits,' he panted. 'Remind me never to try running in one of these again - at least when it's unpowered. Help me out of it, will you?' Vivienne complied, grinning at his discomfort. Elphin bounced off to oversee his men, and Vivienne saw Tal fight to hide a grin at his monarch's enthusiasm. 'Terribly eager, isn't he?' he muttered to her.
The armour discarded, they turned to watch the massive bulk of the fortress. Caer Duergar still squatted on the open plain, earthbound. Taliesin breathed a sigh of relief. He placed an arm around Vivienne and gave her a quick hug. Nearby, Geraint and Elphin made their last minute preparations, lining up the squads ready for the assault. Elphin was with his mounted knights, twenty of the finest, all on cybrorses. The great armoured battlesteeds glinted in the fading sunlight, and Elphin's mount snorted eagerly, pawing the ground with one mighty hoof.
'Flashy,' Vivienne snorted. 'As if they'll bother meeting us on open ground.'
Taliesin shrugged. 'Never hurts to be prepared. Besides, it'll sound good in the epic lay he'll want me to compose afterwards.'
At Elphin's signal, the great Pendragon standard was dipped briefly, and the army began its advance.
'Well, that's that th...' Tal began, with a satisfied smile.
In mid sentence, the fortress in front of them simply vanished.
Vivienne stared at Taliesin, who glared at the empty plain where the fortress had stood, the ground indented where it had lain.
'I did... I know I did...' A puzzled frown furrowed the bard's brow. He ran a hand through tangled red hair. 'That wasn't the suspensor engines, that was a jump!' The hand freed from his hair was balled into a fist and slammed with uncharacteristic anger into the nearest 'thopter. 'They must have found a way to re-create the jesserauntes' dimension jumping facility on a larger scale!' He sucked grazed knuckles. 'Ow.'
A buzz of stunned chatter arose from the startled knights. Elphin wheeled his steed around in a graceful turn on its forehand and cantered over to where Vivienne and Taliesin stood, staring in dismay at the now empty plain.
Elphin reined in his mount and unlocked his helmet. Icy blue eyes stared down at his bard.
'Well?' was all he said. Tal winced under the king's glare.